BOOK REVIEW: Evolution: A Visual Record

A notable feature of the November 2004 National Geographic cover story about evolution is the photographs that accompany nature writer David Quammen‘s text. I’ve had this issue since it came out and it is one of the few issues of NG that I haven’t gotten rid of (one of the others being the January 1993 issue on dinosaurs that came out six months before the release of Jurassic Park in theaters).

The photographs remind us that, at least until genetics showed the relatedness between species and provided compelling evidence for common ancestry, evolution was largely a visual science. It was the physical features of present day and prehistoric animals that were a crucial aspect of Darwin’s thinking on transmutation. And it was the variety of domesticated animals and their plasticity that gave Darwin insight into natural selection. Photographer Robert Clark‘s depictions of museum specimens, some collected by Darwin himself, acted as visceral evidence of evolution to anyone reading the article (except for biased creationists, of course). Clark went on to photograph for Quammen’s 2008 article on the co-discoverer of natural selection Alfred Russel Wallace and a variety of articles since.

Clark’s photographs for National Geographic have been compiled into a wonderful book:


Joseph Wallace (text) and Robert Clark (photographs), Evolution: A Visual Record (New York: Phaidon Press, 2016), 240 pp. 

Publisher’s description Evidence of evolution is everywhere. Through 200 revelatory images, award-winning photographer Robert Clark makes one of the most important foundations of science clear and exciting to everyone. Evolution: A Visual Record transports readers from the near-mystical (human ancestors) to the historic (the famous ‘finches’ Darwin collected on the Galápagos Islands that spurred his theory); the recently understood (the link between dinosaurs and modern birds) to the simply astonishing.

The book organizes Clark’s photos into sections on ancient history (geology and early life), birds, cold-blooded vertebrates, plants, insects, mammals, human evolution, and finally extinction and the impact that humans are having on the natural world. While Quammen provides his always-engaging insight in a foreword, and Joseph Wallace’s text (at the beginning of each section, the photo captions, and a chapter on Wallace) provides important context, it is Clark’s images that really speak to the beautiful ideas of evolution and deep time.


Pitta specimens collected by Wallace in Borneo and Sumatra in 1850s (Photo: Robert Clark)

From images of rock strata, where animal remains are preserved as fossils, and human footprints preserved in lakeside sediment in Tanzania; to images of specimens of insects and birds collected by Darwin and Wallace, and portraits of a male orangutan and the human-like hands of a gorilla, the variety of life displayed in Evolution: A Visual Record captures the beauty of Darwin’s last words in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


A gorilla’s hands (Photo: Robert Clark)

Endless forms most beautiful, indeed – captured in photographs most beautiful by Robert Clark. You can check out some of the images included in this collection on the National Geographic website, here. And Robert Clark posts many of his stunning images on Instagram.

Looking for a gift for a friend of family member with a love for nature and science? A budding biologist in the family? Evolution: A Visual Record would be a great gift this holiday season. You can order this attractive, hardcover book through Amazon for a little under $30 (affiliate link) or from the publisher for $39.95.


BOOK REVIEW: Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

Things happen when humans mess with the environment. It’s a simple statement, cause and effect. What happens to tiny animal-dwelling organisms (viruses and bacteria) when humans encroach into the territories of their host animals, kill them, and even eat them? They can jump to humans and cause all manner of unpleasant infectious diseases. This jumping over is called spillover, and such infectious diseases are known as zoonotic diseases (or individually as a zoonosis). The complex story of how zoonotic diseases have emerged and are affecting animal and human populations across the globe is the subject of nature writer David Quammen’s new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Quammen brings his usual style to Spillover: his global travels as a writer, the story of current research, and the history of science. All melded together, they make for an engrossing read. Spillover is, honestly, a scientific thriller (but nonfiction!), and I really had a hard time putting it down. He took me to Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, and parts of North America I’ve never been. He introduced me to scores of epidemiologists and disease ecologists who work tirelessly to make sense of disease outbreaks, constantly risking their own lives by exposing themselves to pathogens (Quammen, on the other hand, noted several times in Spillover that he is just writing about this stuff: “I didn’t intend to let anyone hand me a Nipah-dripping bat if I could reasonably avoid it”). He brought me close to those bats, as well as pigs, civets, horses, mosquitoes, gorillas, chimpanzees, and somewhat unexpectedly, caterpillars.

While I am happy to know much more about the zoonotic diseases that Quammen focuses on – Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, SARS, Q fever, Psittacosis, Lyme disease, Herpes B, SFV, Nipah, and AIDS – it is the larger, overall message that he shares that I find important. “Shake a tree,” he writes, “and things fall out.” In the last chapter of the book, Quammen offers a long list (he is prone to listing in his writing) of human actions that affect our connectivity to the natural world, and disease. And from those actions will likely come the Next Big One, as it is called by those working on emerging diseases, comparable to the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe in the fourteenth century, smallpox brought to the North American continent in the sixteenth century and killing millions of native peoples, the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, polio (in America), also in the nineteenth century, and the current AIDs crisis worldwide. And as the case has been made clear in Spillover, it will jump from an animal to humans. Should it not be imperative that we think about how we treat animal populations around the globe, especially those that harbor zoonotic diseases? Here Quammen raises the question, but does not have much time to go into how to solve the problem. Raising that question and describing the problem in such detail makes Quammen’s Spillover a must read. To me, with its emphasis on the relationship between humans and other organisms, and with its stressing of the importance of biogeography, evolution, and ecology, this book took me back to Quammen’s two other long-researched books, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction and Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind; and it will take a place next to those on my shelf.

Spillover will be released by W.W. Norton & Company on October 1, 2012. Here’s a trailer (yes, a trailer!) for the book:

Hopefully soon I can make that a signed copy to have on my shelf, as Quammen will be in Portland on October 22nd for an OMSI Science Pub. Full details here.

While I received a review copy from the publisher, I should note that David Quammen is a friend. He lives in Bozeman, MT (queue the caterpillars in the book!) where I went to school. He was well connected to the history department there and so I often heard about his research for the book and places that he had been. He also gave lectures at the Museum of the Rockies on this topic, and wrote several articles as well. I saw him last when I was in Montana in June for the John Tyndall Correspondence Project conference as he was on the home stretch with his manuscript. Congratulations on a wonderful book, David.

Tyndall Conference at 320 Ranch in Big Sky, Montana

Quammen, Jones, and Judson on Darwin, on Quirks & Quarks

From Quirks & Quarks:

February 7, 2009

Download an MP3 of the entire program (22MB).

Happy Birthday Mr. Darwin

February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, certainly the most important biologist in history and one of the great figures in science. Darwin, of course, spent his life developing the theory of evolution by natural selection, which has become the foundation for the understanding of biology. In the 1960’s evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” and that’s a statement with which few biologists would argue.

To honour Darwin’s birthday, we’re devoting our program to a discussion of the life and work of Charles Darwin, and to a discussion of his impact on modern science, with three special guests.

David Quammen is a well known naturalist and science writer, a contributing writer for National Geographic magazine, and a visiting professor at Montana State University. In his book, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: an Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, he explores the fascinating story of Darwin’s quiet life as a scientific pioneer. 
Listen to or download the audio filemp3

Dr. Steve Jones is a professor of genetics and Head of the Department of Biology at University College London. His latest book is Darwin’s Island, The Galapagos in the Garden of England. While the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands are one of the most important icons of Darwin’s work, Dr. Jones argues that, in fact, his research on the wildlife of England – barnacles, plants, soil and and domestic animals – were at least as important in developing his ideas about evolution as his early exploration. 
Listen to or download the audio filemp3

Dr. Olivia Judson is an evolutionary biologist, a science writer, and a research fellow at Imperial College, London. Like most biologists she’s an ardent admirer of Darwin and his work, especially the way it transformed biology from a practice of description into a real predictive and experimental science. She says Darwin’s insights into the operations of the natural world raised questions that scientists are still exploring today, as they investigate the subtle mechanisms of natural selection through genetics. 
Listen to or download the audio filemp3

February 2009 Magazines cover Darwin

Be looking forward to the February issues of Natural History, National Geographic, and Smithsonian.

Natural History contains an article (“Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason,” not online) by Richard Milner about a rediscovered painting that celebrates Darwin’s view of life. Also, Natural History has their own blog that I didn’t know about, but there’s no RSS for it, factotem: findings and musings from Natural History’s fact checker.

Nat Geo, February 2009

Nat Geo, February 2009

National Geographic will have articles by David Quammen, “Darwin’s First Clues,” and Matt Ridley, “Modern Darwins.”  Also, a video with Quammen and a Darwin quiz.

Smithsonian, Febuary 2009

Smithsonian, Febuary 2009

Smithsonian‘s cover story is on Darwin and Lincoln, with three articles: “Lincoln’s Contested Legacy,” “What Darwin Didn’t Know,” and “Twin Peaks” (on their connection).

PODCAST: The Man Who Wasn’t Darwin: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Founding of Evolutionary Biology

Quammen’s recent lecture on Wallace is now available online, here.

Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, independently proposed a theory of natural selection in 1858 which prompted Charles Darwin to publish on his own theory. In his fall Stegner Lecture on November 5, 2008, David Quammen, prolific writer and current Wallace Stegner Endowed Chair in Western Studies at MSU, discusses this lesser known naturalist, evolutionist, geographer, anthropologist, social critic and theorist. (52 minutes)

LECTURE: In Darwin’s shadow n Alfred Wallace

From the Bozeman Daily Chroncile (11/7/08):

In Darwin’s shadow: Alfred Wallace
By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer

Charles Darwin was shocked in 1858 when he received a manuscript describing the idea of evolution through natural selection, written by a younger English naturalist working in the wilds of the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Darwin despaired that his own theory of evolution, nurtured and perfected in secret for 20 years, was about to be scooped. But scientific friends felt both men deserved credit and arranged for the joint presentation of their papers on evolution to a London scientific society.

Those papers received scant notice. It wasn’t until Darwin whipped out a fast and dirty book “The Origins of Species” in 1859 that the world was rocked by the new idea of evolution through natural selection. Today Wallace is famous among scientists for being unknown to the public.

It’s no coincidence that two people could arrive at the same scientific breakthrough at the same time, writer David Quammen told a sold-out audience of more than 200 people Wednesday at the Museum of the Rockies.

At least 148 major discoveries fit that pattern, Quammen said, citing “The Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell. Discoveries of calculus, oxygen and sun spots are just a few examples, and they suggest that scientific discoveries must be in some sense inevitable, Quammen said.

“Scientific discoveries arise from preparatory circumstances and catalytic events,” he said.

Quammen, 60, of Bozeman, award-winning author of “The Song of the Dodo” and other books on science and nature, gave his fourth and last sold-out lecture as the Wallace Stegner distinguished professor of Western American studies at Montana State University. Quammen helped bring Jane Goodall to speak in Bozeman this year, and he said he hopes to bring writer Peter Matthiesen here next spring.

In the case of evolution, the ground was prepared for both Darwin and Wallace by centuries of global exploration and the explosion of knowledge about the world’s species n from aardvarks to penguins to kangaroos.

“The old story of divine creation seemed less and less adequate,” Quammen said, “and Noah’s Ark impossibly crowded.”

Thomas Malthus’ book on population, French naturalists’ suggestion that species may change, and even popular, quasi-scientific books influenced both men as well.

The catalysts for Darwin included his voyage on the Beagle and the weeks he spent investigating species in the Galapagos islands.

For Wallace, it was the years he spent in the Amazon and the Indonesian area, working as a commercial collector of thousands of beetles, butterflies and bird skins for museums and private collectors.

Wallace was a great “bootstrap” story, Quammen said. He came from a poor family, left school at 14, educated himself, worked as a surveyor and a teacher, taught himself to identify plants and read widely, including Darwin’s book about the Beagle voyage.

Wallace ended up in the Malay Archipelago for eight years, collecting thousands of species for the commercial market. As a result he recognized something obvious n that species include lots of individual variations. Other naturalists had failed to see this, Quammen said, because of the common belief that each species was created based on an essential ideal in the mind of God.

Wallace realized that variation is fundamental, and provides the leverage for competition and survival through natural selection, Quammen said. He noticed that different species of monkeys lived on different sides of a large river. If God had created monkeys based on some ideal plan, Wallace wondered, why not put the same monkey on both sides of the river?

The answers came to Wallace in a malarial fever — that only a fraction of offspring survive, setting the stage for adaptive change and evolution by natural selection, Quammen said.

Darwin and Wallace remained on friendly terms, though their ideas differed and Darwin received the credit and fame.

They disagreed on key questions about human beings, and whether the brain and hand were subject to evolution. Wallace, who embraced spiritualism and seances, endorsed explanations that included God, while Darwin did not, Quammen said.

Darwin once wrote Wallace a friendly note, saying, “’I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child,’” Quammen said.

Quammen said his account of Wallace’s contributions appears in the December issue of National Geographic, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the co-discovery of evolution.

Gail Schontzler is at or 582-2633.

David Quammen: "Contagious Cancer: The Evolution of a Killer"

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (3/31/08):

QUAMMEN IN HARPER’S — A report by Bozeman author David Quammen is the feature in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine. The article, “Contagious Cancer: The Evolution of a Killer,” looks at whether certain varieties of cancer can be passed from one person to another and whether that commutability is a natural evolution.

Quammen says the notion of cancer as an individual disease is one of the reasons it is so frightening and isolating: “But what makes it even more solitary for its victims is the idea, secretly comforting to others, that cancer is never contagious. … But there are exceptions.”

Quammen is the author of numerous books and articles. He currently holds the Wallace Stegner Chair at Montana State University.